Plastics pollution in Manitoba waterways increasing, says U of W biology professor

Findings concerning for tourism and fishing industries

Eva Pip, U of W biology professor, is concerned about how water supplies and the future of wildlife is being affected by plastic waste found in Manitoba lakes. Jordan Janisse

In the wake of scientific announcements about rising plastics pollution levels in Manitoba waterways, some in tourism and fishing industries are seeing impacts on their sectors firsthand.

Eva Pip, aquatic toxicologist and biology professor at the University of Winnipeg, started out measuring the water quality of more than 650 Manitoba lakes 45 years ago, but quickly discovered plastics needed to be measured as well.

“When I was out collecting samples, I couldn’t help noticing the plastics in the water,” Pip said. “In fact, that’s the first thing you see when you arrive at a lake, even a remote lake, to take a sample.”

While Pip is troubled by the wildlife she’s documented that have died from eating plastics, she is also concerned about the chemicals from plastics that may make their way into Winnipeg’s water. 

Winnipeg’s drinking water comes from Shoal Lake in western Ontario’s Lake of the Woods system.

“As with similar lakes, there are people living on the shores of Shoal Lake, and you have the same plastics pollution as in Manitoba’s provincial parks and the far north,” Pip said. “The chemical contamination from plastics, like phthalates and bisphenol A (BPA), potential carcinogens and reproduction disruptors, cannot be removed through chlorination by a water treatment plant.”

Further, Pip predicts that Manitoba’s tourism industry could be negatively impacted by rising plastics pollution. 

David Pancoe, owner of Northern Soul, a Manitoba canoe-tripping company, has noticed the impact of plastics and garbage on his eco-tourism business.

“We’re always pitching a remote, pristine wilderness area, and it’s not always that way,” Pancoe said.

Pip and Pancoe have both observed plastics pollution from recreational and commercial fishing as well.

“Birds and animals get entangled and die in commercial fishing nets and lines that are lost and abandoned,” Pip said.

Levels of plastics pollution won’t change if plastics are the cheapest material and producers do not have to take responsibility for the life cycle of their products.

Eva Pip, aquatic toxicologist and biology professor, University of Winnipeg

Pancoe notes that areas frequented by recreational anglers are often littered with plastic minnow and bait tubs, fishing line and knotted spools of fishing line in trees.

Craig Stapon, sport fisherman and host of the Let’s Talk Fishing radio show on CJOB, notes that while beach-goers on Lake Winnipeg contribute to plastics pollution, fishermen are notorious for leaving their plastics materials behind.

“Recreational and ice fishermen are out on lakes and rivers, not cleaning up after themselves properly and a lot of debris ends up in Manitoba’s lakes,” Stapon said.

While fishing yields on Lake Winnipeg have risen due to increasing phosphate levels and the introduction of rainbow smelt, Stapon notes, the fall run of walleye was at Pine Falls instead of the Red River this year partly because of increasing pollution and plastics in the water.

Pip and Stapon believe that more legislative action needs to be taken to reduce the plastics that end up in Manitoba waterways.

“We need legislation to regulate the amount and types of plastics used in consumer goods and packaging,” Pip explained. “Levels of plastics pollution won’t change if plastics are the cheapest material and producers do not have to take responsibility for the life cycle of their products.”

She notes that she’s been presenting her findings to various levels of government since the ‘80s. 

Representatives from Manitoba Conservation were not available for comment by press time.

Published in Volume 65, Number 13 of The Uniter (November 25, 2010)

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